Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Juan Ponce de Leon and the Quest for the Fountain of Youth

Agueybana (The Great Sun) greets Juan Ponce de Leon
at his arrival in Puerto Rico.
Painting by Agustin Anavitate.

On 2 April 1513, after several days of sailing, three small vessels under the command of Juan Ponce de Leon, reach sight of land. Have they found at last the island they are looking for? The mysterious world is which is hidden the Fountain of Youth? They can almost taste its waters! 

Juan was 39 years old at the time, a respectable age for the period in which he lived. He had fought Arabs in Granada, and then, like many soldiers, had cast his eye on the New World, recently rediscovered by Christopher Columbus. 

So, along with 200 other Spanish gentlemen adventurers, he accompanies Columbus on his second expedition, plays his part in exterminating the natives, and is rewarded with an appointment as a provincial governor. 

Like any conquistador worthy of the name, Juan consolidates his power and wealth in the islands around Hispaniola. Then he falls foul of one Diego Columbus, a son of the illustrious Christopher, sent to replace him as governor. The feud continues until the King of Spain authorises Juan to launch an expedition in search of the island called Bimini and its mythical Fountain of Youth. If he finds it he can claim the territory for the Spanish crown and become its first governor, beyond the jurisdiction of the hated Diego.

He sets sail with his three vessels on 12 March 1513 and follows a north-westerly course past the Bahamas. By 27 March they are in uncharted waters, and six days later a sailor sights land. Is it the famous island of Bimini? Have they found the elixir of life? Will women throw themselves at his feet for the secret he has discovered? Alas, he is disappointed. For what they discover is not Bimini, but a wilderness which he baptises La Florida - “flowery land”. 

He goes on to explore the land. But there is no Fountain of Youth! Unfortunately for Juan, he is too early. Right place - wrong time! 

If only he could have waited another 500 years! Then he would have found the Florida we know today, the land with the highest concentration of old people anywhere in the world, and with a true Fountain of Youth, only now called Cosmetic Surgery!

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